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As the water supply under Baton Rouge slowly fills with salt, some officials have called on companies like ExxonMobil and Georgia Pacific to stop tapping the aquifer for industrial uses, depleting the supply.

At the same time, leadership at the agency charged with safeguarding the aquifer has been called into question.

In the most recent regular session, the Louisiana Legislature passed a law directing the Capital Area Groundwater Commission to file periodic reports on saltwater intrusion of the groundwater supply and to follow state law when it comes to providing the public with adequate notice of its meetings and the topics to be discussed

Baton Rouge lies on a geological fault line that roughly runs along Interstate 12. South of the fault line, the ground water is contaminated with salt. The salt has been leaching across the fault for several decades.

Some steps have already been taken to try to keep the problem from worsening. Industrial sites are barred from drilling for water at some depths and are limited in the amount they are allowed to take from other levels of the aquifer.

The privately-owned Baton Rouge Water Company wants tighter restrictions. It wants companies like Georgia Pacific, which turns wood pulp into paper, and ExxonMobil, which uses water to cool equipment at its refineries, to become fully reliant on the Mississippi River for their water needs.

"We believe that it would be prudent for industry to use that river water for their processing versus taking water from the aquifer and saving that for domestic purposes. ... I think as good corporate citizens that would be the right call," said Baton Rouge Water Company Vice President Hays Owen.

Authorities aren't sure how long the aquifer has left before the groundwater under Baton Rouge is completely contaminated with salt. One official guessed 75 years; another 100.

Owen said it won't be a problem in our own lifetime. Still, the water company has purchased riverside land where it's prepared to build a pumping station to draw water from the Mississippi River should that become necessary in the future.

Matt Reonas, who represents the state Department of Natural Resources on the groundwater commission, said salt contamination of the aquifer is a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution.

Reonas and William Daniel, recently elected to represent East Baton Rouge Parish on the Capital Area Groundwater Commission, have both been critical of the commission's behavior.

"Why isn't there some kind of long-term plan? ...What do we need to do? Nobody seems to know at this point," Daniel remarked. "I want to be on the commission because I want to be sure we put a plan in place to preserve our drinking water."

Commission Chairman Barry Hugghins took issue with the complaints, saying industry has taken steps to limit reliance on groundwater, and that the companies that now use about half the water being drawn from the aquifer employ many people who live in the area and have a legal right to withdraw the resource.

"Industry is their heartburn," he said, referring to critics clamoring for tighter restrictions. "I keep getting a steady diet of forcing industry to quit using groundwater."

Ultimately, Hugghins said, he'd love to seal the fault permanently so saltwater intrusion no longer presents a threat.

"The problem is it's just hideously expensive. The technology just isn't to the point where we can do that," he said.

The commission is also monitoring the success of a scavenger well that is engineered to pull saltwater away from freshwater supplies. There is also talk of adding a second scavenger at a different depth.

Officials are still collecting data to determine how effective the scavenger wells are, said scientist John Lovelace of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Asked when saltwater would cover all of Baton Rouge, Lovelace expressed uncertainty.

"That's a great question. I wish I knew," he remarked.

Dan Tomaszewski, a retired USGS groundwater specialist and former commissioner, said the scavenger wells are more of a band-aid than a permanent solution, since they only suck up saltwater that's already leaching into the fresh supply rather than addressing the root issue. 

Industrialists were also fiercely defensive of their own water use.

Georgia Pacific, which uses water to pulp lumber for its paper products, pulls much of its supply from shallow aquifers that already are contaminated with minerals, said spokeswoman Patty Prats. She said the company spends a considerable amount money to clean that water out.

And Exxon already pulls about half its water from the Mississippi River, said Todd Talbot, who was recently chosen to represent the company on the groundwater commission. Exxon taps the aquifer to cool equipment, generate steam power and supply employees with drinking water. To cut off the company from the groundwater supply would be a considerable burden, he said.

"It's not as simple as, 'Oh, just go stick a hose in the river and suck up all your water,'" Talbot said.

Pratt compared it to ripping out a house's plumbing.

However, the public drinking water must take primacy, said State Rep. Denise Marcelle.

She said she tried to pass a state law restricting industrial sites to using river water. However, faced with push-back, she passed a law instead targeted at the groundwater commission itself.

No longer may the group convene backroom "ad-hoc committees," she said. It must follow public meetings laws, public notice laws and Robert's rules of order, and it must submit regular reports to state leaders about the status of Baton Rouge's groundwater supply.

"I want the public to know what's going on," Marcelle said.

"I certainly want to save our aquifer for as long as possible. ... We don't — in my opinion — need to wait until disaster happens."

However, Louisiana law will have to change if politicians want to force industrial sites to stop collecting water from the aquifer.

"For us to tell industry they can't use groundwater, it's not something we can do," said groundwater commission executive director Tony Duplechin.

Engineer Hays Town, of the environmental group Green Army, also expressed concerns about the aquifer and what he viewed as authorities' inaction to address the saltwater problem.

"It's collapsing under our feet. Our government is letting us down," he said.

"They've known for a long time we're in crisis. ... The people should come first and industrial profits should come second."

When the public drinking supply switches over to Mississippi River water, it will cost three times as much and taste one third as good, he predicted.

Louisiana's other groundwater commission has had some success reducing pumping. The Sparta aquifer supplies water to much of north Louisiana, as well as portions of Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, said Lindsay Gouedy, the state commission's education coordinator.

Not all the reductions were good. Some were caused by businesses closing. However, authorities have also sought solutions such as allowing an industrial site to use treated wastewater for their operations, Gouedy said.

"You drive through Louisiana and you wouldn't think we're a water-poor state," she remarked.

"We clearly do not value water to the degree at which we should. ... Water can no longer be just something that's always going to be here. That's just not the case."

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.